I went for an interview at a call-centre.
I know. I know.
But when the going gets tough, the tough'll do anything to stay afloat. That's what I tell myself. And being a foreigner and a job-seeker in the midst of credit crunch hysteria – melancholy so severe and so adored by Londoners that advertisers city-wide use it for rhymes and puns – I can't even splurge for the discounted 'Credit Crunch Lunch'. It's a blessing really, that food in England has the reputation it does.
Basically, if I can trade my time for money, I'll do just about anything until I can find a real job – one that's somehow, even mildly related to anything I learned during 8 years of university.
Getting hired by an inbound call-centre is harder than I'd anticipated. From a customer's perspective, it seemed anyone could get a job at one of these places. Anyone with the aptitude to speak a language and don a headset. Anyone with the ability to read a sales script like a robot and put me on hold. But it's just not that easy.
I found the ad on Gumtree – England's answer to Craigslist – and sent in my CV, claiming front-line customer service experience would fortify my PR skills, for my real profession. This became my mantra. I'd never pull it off if I didn't believe it.
Within a few days, I was called in for the first of two gruelling group interviews. Seated at a table with two nervous and sweaty men in cheap suits, I filled out the first of many forms. The Kiwi recruiter's bulging eyes – presumably a side-effect of years of forced enthusiasm – drilled through to my tarnished soul. She could see I have experience in PR but what, she wanted to know, have I done to qualify me for customer service. Could it be possible I'm not skilled enough for even this?
What came out of me next, I really don't remember. I'm pretty certain they were words, strung together, and I qualified for the big-time group interview. The one involving 35 other applicants vying for 12 open positions that would pay £6.50/hour. For those of you who need a conversion, that's just about not enough to actually live on. Or from my perspective, better than nothing.
After signing a contract surrendering my basic employment rights, I shook the recruiter's hand and headed home reciting my mantra to prepare for the next interview.
Business attire is mandatory, which is the company's first mistake.
On the wage the call-centre offers, such business attire will either have to be found, stolen or borrowed. Only the lucky few who've recently lost well-paying jobs might manage looking sharp at their stations. The working poor aren't generally noted for the contents of their wardrobes.
There were roughly 100 contestants waiting at the entrance of the brown brick building, which we were blocked from entering by two angry security guards, even when it began to rain.
I was the only woman not wearing spike heels, most of which were black patent leather, some of which were platform. I was also the only woman able to keep up with the dowdy interviewer when he led the herd of soggy ill-fitting suits and toddling prom queens to the board room.
The atmosphere was highly competitive, and we were warned to make ourselves stand apart from the crowd, to be a real 'shining star'. Scanning the room, I knew I'd already done it by virtue of being a sore thumb. This was a perfect hybrid of The Office and The X Factor, and I stand no chance in either.
First up was a written test for spelling, basic maths and common sense. Disturbingly, because numbers are generally gibberish to me, I was the first to finish. I asked to be excused to go to the toilet to call attention to my minuscule little victory. All those years of elementary school finally paid off, and someone was going to notice.
The final task, three hours later, after various painful group exercises designed to piss you off and see if you can handle it, was a 2-minute personal presentation about why you rock for the job and to share a favourite customer service anecdote. While I fear public speaking more than I fear traffic in London, thanks to Laurette and Yvette, this segment was my favourite of the day.
"I like talking," was the most popular opener, and I was pretty sure I could beat that. I formed words, strung them together and projected them to my catatonic audience, and I didn't even die of agoraphobia. Without knowing whether I'd bombed or aced, I was glad to have survived.
Next up was Laurette, a pretty girl whose hair was visibly glued on in the front, wearing her interpretation of business attire, an extremely mini skirt, in black. When the interviewer called for her to speak, she nervously adjusted her name card to face herself, again, and stood.
"You already know who you are! It's me, me who needs to find out!" yelled the interviewer – possibly the most disenchanted man in the world. She was chewing gum, and her skirt was caught on her thigh. Even I was trying to catch a glimpse of her underpants. When she sat down giggling, he called on Yvette.
Yvette was a robot. Everything she said came from a slow-motion teleprompter in her mind. She'd be perfect for this job, I thought, until she shared an anecdote of her experience in customer service involving drunks, police and possible law suits. And then suddenly her face lit up, showing evidence of life beneath her dense shell of beauty, and she finished with, "and then he vomited blood."
I was desperate to catch someone's eye, to make sure I'd not inadvertently fallen through a wormhole in the space-time continuum and landed myself in a dimension where a statement like this in a job interview had no comic value. But no one, not a soul would look at me, and I confirmed that I was indeed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then I lowered my head and said a little prayer of thanks to my mother for not smoking crack while she was pregnant with me.
I left not knowing whether I was exactly wrong or exactly right for the job, but yesterday I got the call saying I could start next week. Politely, I declined.
And that's OK, because I start work on Tuesday for a different, unrelated job. One just as taxing, but which comes with a UNICEF t-shirt, twice as much pay and a little itty bitty more hope for future generations.
It's hard to know what to do when you're balancing good and evil.